Saigon’s Top 10 Hidden Markets

By: J.K. Hobson

Saigon brims with energy, much of which comes from its abundance of commerce, especially the local markets. Some of them, like Ben Thanh, Tan Dinh and Binh Tay markets, are famous tourist attractions that seem to stimulate every sense at once. There are myriad specialised markets in Saigon that eschew the tourist-trapping nature and are a deep part of local life. Much of Saigon is hidden under its rich layers. These hidden markets are rare gems.

Hidden marketsImage source: blisssaigon.com

Lantern/Decorations Market

Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in Chinatown is the go-to spot for anyone interested in purchasing decorations and especially lanterns. It is especially frequented by locals looking for decorations during the Tet festival. You’ll find artificial peach and apricot blossoms, models of red carp, gold coins, and red envelopes for handing out the traditional “lucky money”. Tasty snacks like sticky rice cake are abundant on the street. In the month leading up to the mid-autumn festival a variety of traditional lamps are available for the holiday of the harvest.

Hidden marketsCrossroads of Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street and Luong Nhu Hoc, District 5 - Image soucre: citipos.vn

Chinese Medicine Market

The Chinese Medicine Market in Cho Lon (Chinatown) is home to over 180 Chinese medicine stores and clinics. Located on Hai Thuong Lan Ong street and the bordering streets of Luong Nhu Hoc, Phan Huy Chu and Trieu Quang Phuc, the area boasts the biggest collection of traditional Chinese medicine in the south of Vietnam. The smell of herbs permeates the air as visitors peruse the aisles. It’s the place to go to procure the ingredients necessary for a time-honoured tradition of medicine.

Hidden marketsHai Thuong Lan Ong street and the bordering streets of Luong Nhu Hoc, Phan Huy Chu, Trieu Quang Phuc, District 5 - Image soucre: kingfucoidan.vn

Motorbike Accessories Market

With over 8 million motorbikes and counting, Saigon is the motorbike capital of the world, so it stands to reason that it would have a dedicated market for motorbike accessories. It’s on Nguyen Chi Thanh street in District 5. Hundreds of stores peddle wholesale and retail parts for Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Piaggio motorbikes, ranging from original expensive parts to cheap Chinese knock-offs.

Hidden marketsImage source: spadaforaphoto.com

Thuan Kieu Bird Market

One of the most colourful markets is the lively Thuan Kieu Bird Market, a well-hidden gem at the crossroads of Thuan Kieu, Hong Bang and Chay Van Liem streets in District 5 and nestled under an old tamarind tree. Opening at 6am and closing at 6pm, hundreds of bird cages and birds of many colours, sizes and breeds are displayed. Probably more plentiful and noteworthy than the birds are the stockpiles of insects like locusts, crickets, centipedes, grasshoppers, ticks and termites sold as avian cuisine. Be sure to check the collection of scorpions, snakes and other uncommon creepy-crawlies.

Hidden marketsImage source: scootersaigontour.com

Le Hong Phong Pet Market

Le Hong Phong street is the proverbial place to “see a man about a dog”. It is home to a strip of pet stores. First moved from District 1 to District 5 in 2000, locals refer to it as the Pet Market, and it is is known as the primary place where pets (mostly dogs and cats) of numerous sizes and breeds can be purchased, some of them for thousands of US dollars each. On a more unfortunate note, this is one of the first places that people who are in search of their stolen pets come to in hopes of being reunited with their furred friends.

Second-Hand Items – Binh Thanh

The somewhat poetically-named Market of Unused Things (Ve Chai) in Binh Thanh is the closest thing to a never-ending garage sale. Ve Chai refers to articles that no longer have use. Established in the late aughts, it features used knick-knacks such as watches, Zippo lighters and jewellery. You might even be able to find some vintage vinyl treasures.

ShoppingImage source: thanhnien.vn

Trang Tu Fruit Market – District 5

If you’re looking for affordable fruits and veggies, go to the produce market on Trang Tu street in District 5. Next to the Cho Lon coach station, sellers bring delectable delights directly from the Mekong Delta and other farmlands in Vietnam. Fruits like mangosteen, tamarind, sapote, soursop, dragon fruit and rambutan can be found here. You can peruse and purchase produce without even having to get off your motorbike.

Hidden marketsImage source: media.foody.vn

Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

Ho Thi Ky Flower Market is the premier wholesale flower market in Saigon. It is a mere 500 metres, but along its kiosks, everything necessary to create ornate floral arrangements can be purchased. The array of flowers make it one of Saigon’s most beautiful (and exquisitely-smelling) markets.

Hidden marketsImage source: stacieflinner.com

Electronics Market – District 10

Ly Nam De, Tan Phuoc, Vinh Vien, Ly Thuong Kiet Street in District 10 are where you’ll find the largest conglomeration of electronics shops in Ho Chi Minh City, including items that may be seen as outdated to some but are very well-priced. It features an abundance of smartphones, laptops, adapters, headphones and other electronic accessories, displayed on plastic sheets spread out across the pavement.

Banner Image source: media.dulich24.com.vn


Best Gift Ideas in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Lam La

Casa Nhà

Jardin Des Sens

Moriitalia

If you’re thinking about picking the best gift for that special someone, check out our list below of best gift ideas in Ho Chi Minh City. From scented candles, to relaxing armchairs, or how about an intimate dinner at a chic restaurant? We hope this list will help make your gifting experience more meaningful by focusing not only on aesthetics and wow factor but also functionality and meaning.

Casa Nhà

CasanhaImage source: Casa Nhà

What could be worse than when a friend’s housewarming is nearing and you’re still clueless about what to gift? Avoid running around the city, panic searching for ceramic sets and scented candles. Casa Nhà is where to go for the best home gifting solutions, a one-stop furniture store within a complete range of gift items.

Casa Nhà was founded in 2017 with their gorgeous warehouse store opening in Thao Dien. The three-storey building immediately impressed with its innovative European design and the capacity to host a large variety of furniture choices and decor for literally all spaces in the house. Casa Nhà is one of the best stops for buying gifts for the home.

CasanhaImage source: Casa Nhà

Walking around the Casa Nhà warehouse, you’ll instantly fall in love with their modern-looking mini poufs in different styles and shapes that can be perfectly paired with any armchair/lounge or stand decoratively on its own as a true icon of design. Poufs are the perfect solution for when you need extra comfy seating when enjoying a good chat with family and friends. They’re also perfect for when you’re snuggling in with your other half.

Saga Poufs, whose sweet, minimal design resembles colourful macarons fit seamlessly into any tasteful interior. The inspiration of a macaron is put together by two soft contoured shells sandwiching the contrasting Scandinavian wooden strip along the pouf’s centre.

CasanhaSaga Pouf – a trace of sweetness for the beautiful living room

The living room is usually the first place we set foot within the home. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase decor that strongly reflects the homeowner’s unique personality.

While the chunky sofas are usually designed to easily blend into the overall background, armchairs stand out decoratively on their own. This item can be a powerful gift that both flaunts personal taste and comfort and luxury to the home. Its portability provides your lucky loved one with the freedom to creatively arrange and organize the piece within their home. Consider an armchair as a thoughtful and unique housewarming gift.

The Pod Armchair has an ergonomically designed backrest that blends seamlessly into its downward-sloping armrests to create an organic yet sturdy look. The fully padded, scallop shaped back cushion provides visual interest and overall comfort and support.

CasanhaThe Pod Armchair provides support, comfort and outstanding Nordic design.

Jean Paul Gaultier once said, “Perfume is the most intense form of memory”. Scents and fragrances are always a popular and thoughtful gift to receive and Casa Nhà offers an endless choice of delicious scented candles for the home.

Baobab Collection is a premium brand of handcrafted scented candles from Belgium. Proudly displayed at Casa Nhà, Baobab Collection is well known for superior fragrances and materials sourced from the most famous parts of Europe (mineral wax from Germany, crystal glass from Poland, and leather from Italy). Each candle is set in a gorgeous glass jar, completely made by hand to create a product that is completely unique and never the same as another. The packaging alone is an awe-inspiring experience for the receiver. The black box oozes luxury as the bowtie is pulled loose, and the prized candle within stimulates both sight and smell. 

CasanhaThe Black Pearl Candle by Baobab Collection offers intoxicating scents of Ginger and Black Rose

Jardin Des Sens

CasanhaImage source: Jardin Des Sens

After more than a decade of sustainable business since 1998, Jardin Des Sens, the first restaurant by twin brothers, Laurent and Jaques Pourcel, was awarded three Michelin stars for excellent food quality and service. Following their new found fame, Laurent and Jaques started building their food empire. In January 2018, Jardin Des Sens opened its first store in Ho Chi Minh City, operated and in parallel with other four branches in Montpellier under Jacques’ direct supervision.

Situated inside an old, luxurious villa in District 3, whose design oozes classic ‘Frenchness’, Jardin Des Sens boasts a nostalgic look of ivory lavishness. Heavenly on the outside, timeless on the inside, the inner space is decorated semi-classically by wooden objects and chandeliers, chair and table sets. However, the real superstar here is the bar where dozens of world-renowned wines are displayed and stored inside a modern cellar rarely found elsewhere in HCMC. Jardin Des Sens never fails to delight all of our senses.

CasanhaImage source: Jardin Des Sens

But, an experience at Jardin Des Sens doesn’t just stop at wonders and aesthetics. The experience of savouring your meal is what draws people to the restaurant. The dishes are carefully prepared with the level of dedication that bears a similarity to making a work of art. Each course stirs the heart of any appreciator of French cuisine.

Moriitalia

CasanhaImage source: Moriitalia

Our next stop to shop for the perfect gift is Moriitalia – the retail store specialising in kitchenappliances from world-renowned brands. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Moriitalia showroom can be found in VinCom Dong Khoi, full of much loved home and kitchen goods brands such as CharterHouse, CS and KitchenAid.

Shopping for highly functional and yet visually inspiring home products usually is the most challenging task for new homeowners. What about a brand new kitchen appliance for your culinary inclined parents that screams modern beauty and improves their cooking experience at home?

CasanhaImage source: Moriitalia

KitchenAid has a global reputation for being the king of kitchen supplies. Each machine is designed, manufactured and assembled in America with 80% domestically sourced materials to ensure the highest quality before distribution. KitchenAid mixers are able to meet any mixing, folding, or kneading challenges, with great stability and little noise. Powerful functionality aside, KitchenAid products are absolutely stunning with their shiny, colourful, classic art deco appeal that fits easily into any kitchen space.

Banner Image source: casanha.com


Best Tailors in Saigon

By: City Pass Guide

In the tourist areas of Ho Chi Minh City, there are tons of tailors and they even have their own small fabric shops adjacent to their workshops or emporiums. Tailor shops like these are available in abundance in District 1, especially in the backpacker quarter at Pham Ngu Lao.

Since they speak English up to a certain degree, tourists like to drop in and have something tailored fast before they have to leave Saigon again. But I would like to guide you through the process of obtaining custom-made clothing from the tailor the Vietnamese way.

Before we begin to hunt for the best tailors in Ho Chi Minh City, we need to start with the very first question:

What type of clothing do I want?

Well, it might be self-explanatory, but before we go to the fabric market in Saigon, let alone the tailor, we need to decide what we want. If you long for a traditional Vietnamese Áo dài, you can find a broad variety of specialized fabric shops.

One of the most famous Áo dài fabric shops where we bought the material for my fiancé’s long dress:

Cửa Hàng Thái Tuấn

236 Đường 3/2, District 10

The same is true if your goal is to obtain a custom-tailored suit. There are several good fabric shops where you can find the cloth you need near chợ Tân Định (Tan Dinh Market, one of the famous old markets of Saigon).

However, this is Vietnam, and going to a big market is what we love to do here.

Step one: The fabric market

When shopping for the right fabric in Ho Chi Minh City, there is one address you cannot miss:

Chợ An Đông (An Dong Market)

An Dong, W.9, District 5

A part of An Dong Market is some sort of urban flea market where you can buy the usual crap, but upstairs is the paradise of textiles. The focus lies on cloth for shirts, trousers and women’s fashion. Of course, the booths for the dresses are much more colorful than the men’s department, but since I primarily wear black, a very unpopular color in Vietnam for cultural reasons, I don’t pay much attention to pink, yellow and toxic green anyway. Not that they only have ugly colors at the market, no way! The pallette at chợ An Đông is almost as versatile as nature itself.

As I said, I want black fabric and natural fibres as well, so we start our shopping spree and head from one booth to the next. Some cloth looks nice, but contains too much artificial fibre for my taste. At some other booth, the lady shows me some jeans fabric which appears nice and black in the shadow where she keeps it. Upon further inspection I realize, it’s dark blue and not black at all.

In the end I got what I wanted. Black, fine cotton fabric for my shirts at 130,000 VND/m and nice cotton canvas for the trousers at 160,000 and 180,000 VND/m. The price is good, because chợ An Đông is far away from the tourist areas and foreigners are a rare sight. But we bargain a little, just for the heck of it.

By the way, if you don’t know it already, the ladies at the fabric booths know how many meters of cloth you will approximately need for the shirt/dress/trousers you desire.

Step two: Finding the right tailor

A good tailor in Ho Chi Minh City specializes in a certain field. My favorite tailor actually was not happy when I ordered a pair of tai chi trousers. Nervously he flicked through his reference material for trousers and suits, muttering “Never in my 40 years as a tailor, somebody has ordered something like this.” He was afraid that I would not be satisfied with the result and his high reputation would suffer. I decided not to strain the good man with my weird demands and ordered two pairs of normal trousers and three shirts, withdrawing my order for the martial arts pants until I can find a template on the internet or something.

I think the best way to find a good tailor in Saigon is to ask the locals. Many Vietnamese businessmen don’t use overpriced shops at the tourist areas, but order their clothes at the tailor where their father already had his shirts made. That way you can make sure to get the quality work of a proper craftsman at a reasonable price.

As we bring in the fabric we bought at the market, our tailor examines it carefully. He even takes a lighter, setting a corner afire. The fabric burns slowly, doesn’t melt, smoke or stink. After putting out the small flame, he declares it to be pure cotton of high quality.

Chieu

720 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3

After a series of questions about pockets, cuts, folds and the likes, the tailor takes his measuring ribbon and measures my arms, legs, wrists and so on. He writes down everything and I get a foldable business card with the items written on it, the price, day to pick up the finished product and a small sample of the fabric.

We also bought the fabric for my fiancé’s Áo dài that day, so we head to a tailor, famous for beautiful Vietnamese long dresses.

Nhà May Chi

149 Nguyễn Thiện Thuật, District 3

This specialized tailor comes from the center of Vietnam, from the ancient city of Hue. The shop is quite busy, apparently they are famous for quality tailoring as well. Basically the process is the same as for my trousers and shirts. But since the Áo dài is a rather clinging dress, I am excluded from the measuring process and wait outside. During that time I marvel at the array of hand-painted fabrics exhibited in the shop.

We tuck away the foldable business card with the scrap of cloth inside, and head for dinner.

A custom-tailored Áo dài from Saigon will cost from around 700,000 VND upwards. It always depends on the fabric. Student Áo dàis are available for a little less, while you can reach really high prices with silk and hand embroidered hems at luxury tailors in Ho Chi Minh City.

One of the most famous luxury Áo dài tailors of Ho Chi Minh City is in Lý Tự Trọng street, close to Ben Thanh market:

Vo Viet Chung

205 Lý Tự Trọng, District 1

For a more high-end option in Ho Chi MInh City, we recommend:

H&D Tailor

No.5 street, District 7

If you are not in Saigon, but you are searching for a tailor in other cities of Vietnam, please feel free to take a look at our listings of tailors in Vietnam.

Step three: Pick up your custom-made clothes

Well, this one is pretty self-explanatory again. In the card you received from your favorite tailor in Saigon, you find the day when your order is finished. You go there, try if it fits as you imagined it and pay. The tailor will make minor adjustments if necessary.

Not necessary if you buy just a shirt and trousers, but a vital step if you ordered a whole suit, is the intermediary measurement. You just drop by a couple days before your suit is finished, put on the half-finished clothing and the tailor will measure again for small adjustments. JUst to make sure, everything fits perfect.

Now go and have fun with your custom-tailored clothing made in Ho Chi Minh City!

Both of us were very happy with the fashion items we purchased that day. The only downside to mention would be, that both our tailors don’t speak a word of English. Not an obstacle for us, but maybe if you don’t have the time to partner up with somebody who speaks Vietnamese, you might want to stick to the tailors in District 1.

For long-limbed foreigners like me, it is kinda hard to find shirts or trousers that fit. I remember spending around two hours trying different jeans at Metro in Da Nang, until I ended up with one that fit me well. It was blue though. Yuck!

Ordering custom-made clothes at the tailor in Ho Chi Minh City is much easier. You get exactly what you need, and usually at a reasonable price. Trousers come at VND 170,000 plus the cost of the fabric for example. A whole suit might cost as much as VND 2,500,000 , but custom-tailored and of high quality.

Depending on area, specialization and versatility of your tailor, it might even be double the mentioned price sometimes. A bespoke tailor might charge even more, for good reasons.


D1 Tattoo Studio Makes Indispensable Art

By: City Pass Guide

Before you take a seat in the chair to get inked at Spade Art Tattoo Studio, before you meet with the artists to draft your one-of-a-kind image, you’ll have to answer to an important first question: why?

“I think tattoo is not fashion”, Quoc “Seven” Nguyen said alluding to the seriousness of putting a permanent image on a person’s body. Whether it’s fashionable, whether the image is in vogue or not, is irrelevant, the 36-year-old tattoo artist contends. Nguyen argued that the most important part of tattoo work is understanding the customer, and what purpose the tattoo serves for them.

“We want to know why you want this tattoo”, the studio’s customer liaison Dean Parker said.

tattoo studio

It’s a time-intensive and, frankly, less profitable strategy than a typical tattoo process, which usually involves little more than walking in with an image on paper and walking out with it somewhere on your body.

This, Nguyen said, is among the reasons his business is called a “studio” rather than a “tattoo parlour”.

“Many people know how to do tattoos, but don’t know how to do art”, Nguyen said.

Done with Finesse, Not Speed

Spade Art Tattoo Studio’s collaborative, client-centred tattoo drafting approach is a contrast to the high-metabolism, attention-light way that people typically consume creative work—marketing and commercial communications teams produce images tailored to an ad campaign that will be seen for as long the message is relevant before it becomes junk. A former commercial artist, it’s a system Nguyen knows very well.

tattoo studio

Before becoming a tattoo artist, Nguyen spent his days working in a sector known for devouring creative people: advertising.

His more than 10 years creating advertising work included stints at a number of highly-visible firms such as Cheil Worldwide, Dentsu, Y&R, J. Walter Thompson where he was comic artist, visualizer, designer, and then art director. He serves clients such as Panasonic, Samsung, Pepsi ect...

Despite his being a capable commercial artist, Nguyen said it was creatively defeating to see his body of work become trash after it outlived its usefulness.

Inspired by the serious tattoo scene in he saw in Thailand five years ago, Nguyen decided to leave the advertising profession and strike out on his own as a tattoo artist. Four years ago, he founded Spade Art Tattoo Shop in downtown District 1.

Quoc used to host the Saigon International Tattoo Convention in 2016 where gathers the tattoo artists in Vietnam and globally, namely Jess Yen, Tomo Ikarashi, and Josh Lin.

Almost as if in response to the advertising world’s large scale, commodified production and reproduction of single, standard images, Nguyen has trained his staff to work with clients to produce one-of-kind work. The tattoo you get at Spade Art Tattoo Studio will be an individualised, image unique to your body.

Nguyen and his staff have produced hundreds tattoos in this manner so far.

tattoo studio

In the Chair

Spade Art Tattoo Studio sits on the first floor of a building overlooking shady Le Anh Xuan street. Newly inked clients at Spade Art Tattoo Studio can sit on the tattoo studio’s small balcony and get some fresh air while they cool down from their ink session.

Client’s who’ve reviewed the tattoo studio on Facebook find the ambience comfortable and even laud the music selection. The staff is consistently described as friendly, knowledgeable, gentle when needle comes to skin and—most importantly—good.

The reviews praise not just the Vietnamese artist’s ability to communicate in English, but their genuine interest in understanding what the tattoo means for the client and designing one-of-a-kind, original and deeply personal work based off that.

tattoo studio

Nguyen reported the greatest share of the studio’s customers are foreigners.

Together Nguyen and his staff, fellow creatives that he prefers to refer to as family rather than employees, have about 16 years of combined experience creating tattoos.

Through his work at Spade Art Tattoo Studio, Nguyen has gained stature within the Saigon tattoo community with almost no advertising. The positive experiences the studio’s clients have had beget new business.

Phuoc Truong, a tattoo artist with three years of experience, said he decided to join Spade Art Tattoo Studio because Nguyen treats him like a brother and leads as a peer. More than just just doing tattoos and collecting payments, Truong said the tattoo studio’s staff and clients have grown into a community of art makers and those who have committed to keeping some on their bodies forever.

Truong works with another artist at Spade Art Tattoo Studio also named Phuc Truong who has 6 year-experience in tattoo industry, has chosen tattoo as his career and wishes to convince his parents about his choice and will make it success.

“They are together, they’re there to share and learn, build something for customers,” Tran said translating Truong’s comments made in Vietnamese.

Contact:

Spade Art Tattoo Studio | 1st Floor, 41 Le Anh Xuan, D1, HCMC

Phone: +84 947 777 891 | Website: http://spadeart.tattoo/

Email: spadeartstudio@gmail.com | Facebook: /spadearttattoo.studio/

Image source: Spade Art Tattoo Studio


The Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers

By: Mervin Lee

Vietnamese Coffee is known for being some of the best available. The country is the top producer of Robusta in the world. Therefore, it is unsurprising that for travellers and expats in Vietnam, coffee is the top sought after souvenir and most often consumed beverage product.

However, with Ben Thanh Market and other familiar tourist destinations filled with hundreds of potentially dubious brands and nameless packets of coffee grinds roasted and left to stand for months and possibly even years, consumers are rightly apprehensive about the quality of what is on display.

vietnamese coffeeA dazzling display of coffee beans and powder at Ben Thanh Market - by Mervin Lee

We’ve put together a concise and simple to understand guide to help you understand java-science so that you can choose Vietnamese coffee of good quality which, hopefully, agrees with your palate!

Definition of ‘Vietnamese Coffee’ and Relieving the Confusion

Vietnamese Coffee refers to both a style of traditional Vietnamese roast and a style of brew. It is possible to brew Italian-style roasted beans with the ubiquitous Vietnamese phin drip filter, and likewise, also possible to brew traditional Vietnamese-style dark roasts with a foreign device such as a French press.

vietnamese coffeeSaigonese street coffee being mass-brewed using Vietnamese phin drip filters - by Mervin Lee

Traditional Vietnamese techniques involve roasting Robusta coffee beans very dark with additives such as butter, salt, whisky, rice liquor or even sugar and fish-sauce. These additives help to elevate the savouriness and palatability of the notoriously harsh and bitter tasting Robusta beans.

Chemical flavourings and fragrances are often added, with the most common being vanilla and hazelnut, the former an age-old cliché aroma sought after in Vietnamese coffee powder.

Fillers such as roasted corn, soybeans and red beans are common and some recipes call for filler content of up to 50%. Fillers are used to thicken, darken and somewhat sweeten the coffee and they also increase profits. Connoisseurs who are seeking pure coffee should note that it is practically impossible to gauge the purity of coffee in Vietnam based on looking at grinded coffee powder. Diligent people should opt to purchase whole beans at shops before requesting them to be grounded on the spot.

When extracted using the iconic Vietnamese phin drip filter, the espresso-like liquid is then served with or without ice, and preferably with condensed milk to offset it’s bitterness. This popular beverage is known as ca phe sua da, the renowned mascot of Vietnamese coffee.

vietnamese coffeeEnjoying a cup of ca phe sua da on a hot Saigonese day - by Mervin Lee

Advancements in coffee farming has allowed the development of higher quality Robusta and Arabica coffee beans. Globalisation and changing preferences has resulted in a trend of roasting pure, additive-free coffee and subsequently brewing them with a wide range of foreign methods such as Italian-style espresso and paper filter. When these coffees are brewed using a phin, the technique remains Vietnamese.

Thus, the first item that you should procur is a high quality Vietnamese phin drip filter if you desire a strong and traditional Vietnamese brew. The phin works by filtering coffee through 2 layers of tiny holes and allowing the coffee to fall with the help of gravity.

City Pass Guide recommends the Trung Nguyen phins made of quality aluminium and available at all Trung Nguyen coffee shops. For connoisseurs who prefer a non-metal solution, Minh Long offers a series of beautiful porcelain Phins handcrafted in Binh Duong Province.

Roast Levels and Blends

Taste preference differs between individuals. Not everyone enjoys bitter coffee without sugar, and although many people do not appreciate light roasted and acidic coffee, third-wave coffee snobs may insist that such qualities are preferred.

vietnamese coffeeImage source: sc02.alicdn.com

The three-waves of coffee culture was described by Jonathan Gold in his 2008 article “La Mill: The Latest Buzz" for LA Weekly.

“The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet's and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”

Robusta coffees are generally bitter and harsh in taste, while Arabica coffees are often more acidic, higher in natural sugar content and superior in fragrance. As a general guideline, a medium roasted coffee is a good balance between intensity, acidity, sweetness and fragrance, since ample time has been given for bitter compounds to degrade. Light roasted Arabicas are acidic but preserve the original aroma and flavour compounds, known as ‘origin character’ in third-wave coffee-speak. Dark roasted Arabica coffees are savoury and intense in flavour, having lost most of its acidity through the roasting process and may be bitter if coffee caramels have begun to burn in the roasting process if beans are not roasted with skill and care. French-style roast is an example of very dark roasted coffee.

As such, the skill of the coffee roaster and the art of blending different types of beans at different roast levels becomes extremely crucial for Italian-style espresso and Vietnamese phin coffee since these styles involve extracting coffee with very little water, resulting in highly concentrated and intense brews. Arabicas may be added to a predominantly Robusta blend to introduce pleasant acidity, aroma and to relieve the blend of dullness. Likewise, Robusta may be added to a predominantly Arabica blend to introduce body and crema for Italian-style espresso.

vietnamese coffeeImage source: i.ytimg.com

Common ratios and names of these ratios at specialty coffee shops in Saigon include 20-80, 50-50 and 80-20, describing the percentage ratio of Arabica to Robusta coffee.

Here is a breakdown of the various types of coffee beans and species that may be found by examining the printed contents information on packaged commercial coffee.

Arabica - The most popular and widely consumed coffee species in the world with countless cultivated varieties. It is known for its nuanced, alluring floral and fruity notes, which vary wildly depending on region and varietal. Arabica is disliked by some due to its acidity, which can be mildly sweet and berry or citrus-like in specialty varieties.

Culi (Peaberry) Arabica - In normal circumstance, a coffee cherry contains two coffee beans. Peaberries, known as culi in Vietnamese coffee-lingo, are coffee beans that have developed into a single spherical bean due to the lack of fertilisation of the other bean. Culi Arabicas are very rare and known for a higher intensity of Arabica’s attributes.

Robusta - The underrated Robusta is known for being bitter and harsh but is the choice for daily indulgence in Southeast Asia due to its natural lack of acidity. Advancements in cultivation and coffee processing has improved it’s flavour drastically.

Culi (Peaberry) Robusta - Culi Robustas are known to be more bitter, but also sweeter, and are said to contain considerably more caffeine.

Liberica and Excelsa - Rare and related species of hardy, tropical coffee plants. Liberica is popular in Malaysia and the Philippines and is liked for its attractive and earthy aroma that is often accompanied by a smokey taste resembling dark chocolate, berries and tropical fruits. Excelsa coffee is similar and is known to be tart and fruity with a lingering finish.

When buying ground coffee, It is critical for a buyer to check for the coffee roast date. Dark roasted coffees oxidize faster and light roasted coffees last longer if kept in airtight mason jars. As a rule of thumb, buy coffee that is as fresh as possible! When buying from shops that are able to grind fresh coffee beans, one should choose the grind size based on the intended brew method (e.g.: coarse for French press, medium-fine for paper filter and fine for espresso).

vietnamese coffeeImage source: caphenguyenchat.vn

If you’re intending on becoming a coffee snob, investing in a coffee grinder and relying on coffee beans may be your best bet if you’re a sucker for freshness.

Common Vietnamese Coffee Terms

Bột - Powder
Nguyên hạt - Unground coffee beans
Hạt Rang - Roasted coffee beans

Cà Phê Nguyên Chất - Pure coffee without additives
Cà Phê Rang Xay - Roasted and ground coffee
Cà Phê Hòa Tan - Instant/dissolvable ground

Cà Phê Mít - Mít means jackfruit in Vietnamese and Cà Phê Mít has nothing to do with the yellow-fleshed tropical fruit and refers to Liberica and Excelsa coffee.
Cà Phê Chồn - Civet coffee. Often known in the western world as weasel coffee. A coffee processed from faeces of civets which consumed coffee cherries. Natural wild civet coffee is very expensive while farmed varieties are more affordable. Most civet coffee in Vietnam is a made with chemical flavouring and/or artificial enzymes.

Video source: Best Ever Food Review Show

Hương - Artificial fragrance
- Butter
Rượu - Liquor

Price List for Some Popular Coffee Shops and Brands in HCMC

The Souvenir Favourites:

Trung Nguyen
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND50,000 - 100,000 for 340g of the popular Sang Tao 1 - 5 ground coffee series featuring various blends

Highlands 
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND40,000 - 75,000 for 200g of ground coffee featuring various blends

The Enthusiast Range:

Mr Viet Coffee 
Available at Annam Gourmet Market at Hai Ba Trung Street or Saigon Center

They have 4 types of coffee beans available in the 250g size:
Đà Lạt VND89,000
Good Morning VND107,000
Arabica VND137,000
Hương chồn VND163,000

The Coffee House 
19 locations around the city
VND100,000 for 250g of The Coffee House’s signature Arabica & Robusta blend

Tractor Coffee 
98 Lê Lai, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, D1

For 250g:
VND60,000 of Robusta
VND120,000 of Specialty Arabica

The Specialty Group:

K’ho Coffee 
K’ho Coffee can be sampled and purchased at Trekker Cafe
21 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, D1 “Journey sandwich & coffee
6 Lê Văn Miến, Thảo Điền, D2 “Soma art coffee
VND125,000 for 250g or VND250,000 for 500g of K’ho Coffee’s excellent specialty beans offered in light, medium and dark roast levels.

Shin Coffee 
13 Nguyễn Thiệp, D1
18 Hồ Huấn Nghiệp, D1

They have 9 types of coffee beans available in the 200g size.
Spirit Of Eakmat - VND300,000
Ethiopia-g1 - VND240,000
VN Phin - VND100,000
Shin Espresso - VND300,000
Khe Sanh Blend - VND100,000
Sơn La Blend - VND180,000
Shin Blend - VND300,000
Đà Lạt Blend - VND150,000
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe - VND240,000

Vietnamese Coffee Republic 
8A/7B2 Thái Văn Lung, D1

Republic Blend - Arabica/Robusta
30-70 VND115,000 for 250g
50-50 VND135,000 for 250g
70-30 VND155,000 for 250g
100 percent Arabica VND185,000 for 250g

The Workshop Coffee 
27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé W, D1 (2nd floor)

For 250g:
Vietnamese coffee beans - VND240,000
Foreign coffee beans - VND315,000

A Cafe Specialty Coffee 
15 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, D1

For 250g:
Espresso - VND188,000

Arabica - Robusta Blend:
50-50 : VND90,000
70-30 : VND82,000
30-70 : VND98,000
100 percent Arabica - VND110,000
100 percent Robusta - VND70,000

City Pass Guide highly recommends readers to visit, like and share the Facebook pages of these excellent coffee cafés and suppliers for more information!

Banner Image source: Mervin Lee


The Rise (or Fall) of Mall-Based Retail in Saigon

By: Mervin Lee

The history of shopping malls in Ho Chi Minh City is relatively brief. The country re-opened to foreign investment in the early 1990s, a time in history when inhabitants of numerous major cities in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok were receiving their glutton-like shares of retail therapy via the introduction of mega malls. Investors eyed every possible inch of land in these metropolitan places, effectively holding citizens hostage by nurturing a mall-based retail culture that has, so it seems, never truly hit Vietnam, even until now.

Malls Take Over Valuable Real Estate in Saigon

The first modern ‘mall’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Diamond Plaza, opened its doors in 1999, superseding the antiquated Thuong Xa Tax on Le Loi street, built by French colonialists 136 years ago, as a retail pilgrimage spot for middle class and wealthy Saigonese. The establishment was, however, not very much different from its de-facto ancestor: effectively a departmental store with limited choices of food & beverage (F&B) establishments and recreational facilities such as an arcade, bowling alley and a billiards club.

Fast forward to 2013 where Vincom Centre began operations at the junction of Le Thanh Ton and Dong Khoi street. The arrival of a mall and office tower worthy of presence in even bigger cities signified a rather revolutionary change in retail trends in Vietnam: American apparel brands and fast food chains such as DKNY and Carl’s Jr featured as neighbours beside popular Vietnamese F&B chains including Pho 24 and Highlands Coffee. Between 2013 and 2018, numerous other notable malls such as Saigon Centre, Crescent Mall, SC Vivocity and The Garden Mall began taking over the most valuable plots of land in District 7, District 1 and District 5.

Malls in SaigonImage source: aeonmall-vietnam.com

A walk in these malls, however, easily sparks a common sentiment: most retail tenants in these places seem to be focused on F&B. In fact, this phenomenon has also sparked the birth of an indie-style retail culture in downtown Saigon, where several colonial-era residential buildings such as 42 Nguyen Hue and 26 Ly Tu Trong are now filled with independent cafes and fashion boutiques, many of which cannot afford the sky-high rental costs at larger malls.

Has the convenience of e-commerce and online shopping already beaten mall-based retail to its own game in Vietnam?

An article in April 2018 by the Financial Times stated that the Vietnamese are one of the largest sources of digital consumers, commanding a solid 35 percent of the total online population, compared to 24 percent in Thailand and a measly 3.2 percent in Singapore. Mr. Tran Ngoc Thai Son, founder of Tiki.vn, began with online sales of hard-to-acquire English language books in 2010 and has now expanded to a huge variety of products including electronics and promotional flight tickets. He shared that Vietnam is a “very young country going through a golden population period”. Incidentally, the youth are the most enthusiastic users of mobile devices in Vietnam, potentially the reason e-commerce could be a success here. Amazon is also set to enter the Vietnamese market shortly, competing directing with Lazada, the most popular e-commerce operation in the country. Chinese giant Alibaba owns 83 percent of Lazada, having injected another US$2 billion worth of investment into the company earlier last year.

Malls in SaigonImage source: Shutter Stock

However, tales of smuggled and pirated goods on e-commerce sites are not unheard of. An article by tuoitre.vn showed examples of household appliances by popular brands such as Panasonic and Philips being sold at less than 30 percent of their recommended retail prices on sites such as Lazada, Sendo and Shoppe. The origins of these items are hardly traceable. Could such problems spur consumers back to traditional shopping?

The Changing Architecture of Retail Zones

On the other end of the spectrum, the freedom to operate F&B and retail business from almost any property has turned entire residential enclaves into non-mainstream, open-spaced shopping complexes. The best example is the Thao Dien ward of Saigon’s District 2, known for its high density of villas, condominiums and international schools which mainly serve the foreigner and expat population in Ho Chi Minh City. Xuan Thuy street and its immediate surroundings at the heart of Thao Dien is now a respectable foodie haven; from an American burger bar, barbecue diner, craft beer bar to Hakata-style pork ramen, Danish sorbets and even a celebrity-level duck balut joint, a VND100,000 note suddenly becomes rather powerless in a country known for its cheap eats.

Malls in SaigonImage source: static.asiawebdirect.com

Huynh Van Banh street in Phu Nhuan district is another apt example. Known to young fashionable locals as a mecca for cheap apparel deals, one would wonder why these flamboyant youths would ever bother to sacrifice commuting convenience and low prices to shop at large and intimidating malls. One easily finds similarity to Bugis Street in Singapore, effectively a fashion bazaar built on a now-defunct street between two parallel lengths of old colonial buildings. A feasible strategy would be for the local authorities to designate certain areas in suburban Saigon for similar purposes. Nonetheless, locals may still remain skeptical unless rental rates and shopping can be kept affordable; it is unavoidable that any ‘night market’ or ‘fashion bazaar’ pop-up in Vietnam would quickly be disregarded when compared with highly successful fashion and food bazaars found in downtown Bangkok—potentially leading locals into yet another self-induced bout of inferiority complex.

Perhaps it is time for local mall operators to up the game by identifying the causes of discomfort and local aversion to physical shopping. The reliance on motorbikes as the main form of transportation is a key point that should not be ignored. Parking in malls can be intimidating to some locals; extended walking distances and searching for one’s motorbike in a large parking lot is an uncomfortable experience for many. The purchase of bulky items and groceries is also a challenge: uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

Thank God for our hardworking ‘shipper’ guys who will stay relevant, regardless of whether malls are here to stay.

Banner Image source: livinglocal.triip.me

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